The armed men showed up in the Northern Mexican town of Canelas at 11 a.m. First they came by motorcycle; 200 of them, masked and carrying machine guns. Dozens more soon jumped out of airplanes, strapped with assault rifles. Finally, helicopters circled overhead, carrying grenades, radios and pistols.
At the center of it all was 17-year-old Emma Coronel, a beautiful girl from a tiny village nearby called La Angostura. The daughter of Blanca Estela and Ines Coronel Barreras, Coronel, was being courted by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, the lethal and powerful leader of the savage Sinaloa Cartel.
Guzman’s display — held in 2007, on the day Coronel was competing for the title of Miss Coffee and Guava Fair — was his way of throwing a party, and announcing his intention to marry Coronel.
The wedding was just a few months later, on Coronel’s 18th birthday. Seven years after that, Guzman was arrested in Mexico, discovered in his underwear making breakfast for Coronel and their twin daughters. Locked up for just over a year in Mexico’s maximum security Altiplano Federal Prison, he escaped this week through a mile-long tunnel and hasn’t been seen since.
Waiting for him, presumably, is Coronel.
The tradition of drug lords marrying young beauty queens dates back decades, when Mafia boss Sam Giancana married Miss Sinaloa 1958, Kenya Kemmermand Bastidas. From that time on, the practice continued: Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, one of the founders of the powerful Cali Cartel, married Miss Colombia 1974, Martha Lucia Echeverry. More recently, Sandra Murcia — known as Miss Coca — married Valle Cartel boss Efrain Hernandez.
Despite the cliche of powerful men settling down with beautiful women (see: politicians, athletes, Hollywood agents, and Wall Street tycoons) it’s not clear exactly why beauty queens of both North and South America and drug lords are repeatedly drawn to each other. But what is clear is that for girls in small, rural towns like Canelas, marrying a man like Guzman is a fast track to wealth and power.
“A lot of young women are attracted by the false riches of the drug gangs,” Judith del Rincon, a women’s rights activist and former Sinaloa legislator, told the Associated Press in 2012. “They offer the fantasy of a life of riches without much work.”
Within the girls’ families, the marriage is often a point of pride. According to the Mexican magazine Proceso, Coronel’s father was ecstatic over his daughter’s future husband.
“Colonel Barrera,” they wrote, “did not conceal his joy at affinity with such a powerful boss.”
Like illegal drugs, beauty is a highly valuable commodity. In the state of Sinaloa, there are at least four nationally renowned beauty contests: Miss Coffee and Guava Fair, Nuestra Belleza Sinaloa, the Guamuchil Carnival Queen and the Mazatlan Carnival Queen. Sinaloans are known to boast about having the most beautiful women in the country: Seven winners of Nuestra Belleza México — a Mexican national beauty pageant — have come from there, making it the most frequently represented state in the competition.
Coronel’s beauty clearly played a factor in Guzman’s dedication to her. But her family also held integral roles in the Sinaloa Cartel; her uncle was Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel Villarreal, one of four cartel leaders along with El Chapo, and one of the biggest traffickers of cocaine and methamphetamine into Mexico and the U.S.
After he was killed, the Los Angeles Times wrote that Villarreal’s “share of the Mexican methamphetamine market was considered significant enough that analysts speculated his death might actually disrupt supplies of the synthetic drug.”
Following Coronel and Guzman’s wedding, she stayed mostly out of the public eye, as did her husband. Guzman is known for conducting business quietly, moving through the drug world like an alligator gliding through a Louisiana swamp. In 2011, Coronel surfaced in news reports after giving birth to twin daughters — at Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, California, reportedly on the orders of Guzman. His daughters, like their mother, have dual citizenship in both countries — Coronel was born in California.
By all accounts, Coronel is alive and well, as are her daughters. But dalliances with cartel members often end violently for young women. In 2012, 20-year-old Maria Susana Flores Gamez (2012 Woman of Sinaloa) was killed during a gun battle between her boyfriend’s cartel associates and Mexican soldiers. María José Alvarado (Miss Honduras 2014) and her sister, Sofia Trinidad Alvaro, were murdered in 2014 by Maria’s boyfriend, suspected cartel member Plutarco Ruiz. Before marrying Coronel, Guzman had a relationship with a young woman named Zulema Hernandez, who was killed and stuffed into a car trunk by rival gang Los Zetas.
Bastidas, the original beauty queen-turned mob wife, was found murdered in Sicily just two years after marrying Giancana.
If they live through their relationships with cartel kings, young women associated with drug lords often still find themselves in trouble. Laura Zuniga, winner of the 2008 Belleza Sinaloa pageant, was arrested in December of the same year after being pulled over with seven men who were carrying “AR-15 assault rifles, 38 specials, 9mm handguns, cartridges and $50,000 in cash,” according to CNN.
Plenty of beautiful young women make the choice to be involved with drug lords — but in some instances, they have little say in the matter. Rosa Maria Ojeda of Sinaloa was pursued by a high-ranking cartel member for months after winning a 2006 pageant.
“It’s hard to say ‘no’ nicely so that they get the message without getting angry,” she told the Mexican newspaper Reforma. “It’s very scary.”